Psalm 79 – Facing Trauma

Raise Up by Hank Willis Johnson in the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Our God, foreign nations
    have taken your land,
    disgraced your temple,
    and left Jerusalem in ruins.
They have fed the bodies
of your servants
    to flesh-eating birds;
    your loyal people are food
    for savage animals.
All Jerusalem is covered
    with their blood,
    and there is no one left
    to bury them.
Every nation around us
    sneers and makes fun.

Our Lord, will you keep on
    being angry?
    Will your angry feelings
    keep flaming up like fire?
Get angry with those nations
that don’t know you
    and won’t worship you!
They have gobbled down
Jacob’s descendants
    and left the land in ruins.

Don’t make us pay for the sins
    of our ancestors.
    Have pity and come quickly!
    We are completely helpless.
Our God, you keep us safe.
    Now help us! Rescue us.
    Forgive our sins
    and bring honor to yourself.

Why should nations ask us,
    “Where is your God?”
Let us and the other nations
    see you take revenge
    for your servants who died
    a violent death.

Listen to the prisoners groan!
Let your mighty power save all
    who are sentenced to die.
    Each of those nations sneered
    at you, our Lord.
Now let others sneer at them,
    seven times as much.
    Then we, your people,
    will always thank you.
We are like sheep
    with you as our shepherd,
    and all generations
    will hear us praise you. (CEV)

Yes, you are in the right place. No, this is not yesterday’s post. The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Scripture readings include a psalm reading every day. What is more, the same psalm is read three days in a row. This is because psalms are designed to be repeatedly used. So, today, I continue reflecting on this psalm….

The psalmist was full of emotion as he crafted his words. Reflecting on the tragic and horrific takeover of Jerusalem and its destruction, he cried out in spiritual and emotional pain concerning the trashing of God’s temple and Name, and the physical and verbal violence executed on the people. The psalmist wanted the victimization to stop and the victimizers to feel God’s wrath.

This psalm is raw and real, an expression of the true self. Here there is no pie-in-the-sky positive thinking with singing about always looking on the bright side of life. It is agonizing grief in all its misery and disgrace. Thus, therein lies the path to healing: To connect with the true self, refusing the pretensions of the false self, expressing the real lived feelings and thoughts of honest wounds.

Illumination by American sculptor Paige Bradley

The alternative only presses further pain into the soul. The false self, seeking to takeover and make one feel better, engages in a devil’s pact by ignoring the aching spiritual doubt and emotional injury within to have temporary reprieve from the troubled spirit. The road to renewed and lasting happiness comes not through the false self but the true self’s recognition of the event(s) in all their foulness and degradation. It is a hard road to walk, yet we must travel it if we are to live in the light of truth, joy, and peace.

You and I will not find God in the false self. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that, when having experienced trauma, we hustle to obtain something we already possess. We might believe God is not there, or simply does not care. As one becomes alienated from the Lord, there increasingly becomes self-distancing. Disconnected from life-giving divinity, self-loathing gradually replaces self-awareness, and thus, self-compassion.

If at any point, we begin to associate and then fuse self with our traumatic experience(s) then the inner person weakens and becomes detached from the spiritual resources needed to heal. We are not our events. We are people created in God’s image and inherently worthy of love, compassion, kindness, goodness, and healing. We were not made for death and destruction but for life and connection.

The demonic termites of contempt might eat away at our humanity, yet there is always a way to exterminate them – through telling our story, as the psalmist did, with emotional flavor and full honesty. The true self is there; we just might need to dig a little deeper to find her.

So, if you notice that you tend to avoid planning for self-care; engage regularly in self-pity; or, swear at yourself under your breath with self-hatred; then it is high time for the false self to quit calling the shots and to bring up the true self. Internal conflict is not resolved through avoidance; it comes through external voicing of one’s story to another who listens with care.

The psalmist spoke to both God and God’s people. His story came from the gut, the place where both deep loathing and deep compassion come from. If one has already been tortured by a traumatic experience, the torture will continue from the false self unless the true self asserts herself and seeks awareness, mercy, and healing.

Stories are meant to be told. And they need to be uttered when the storyteller is ready and not when the listener is. Through the voicing of their ordeal, victims of human-inflicted suffering need to hear that God is just and will right the wrong things in this world. They need some hope of healing and some assurance that their injury will not go unanswered.

This can be tricky business because the act of proclaiming one’s story and the reception of that message by another might easily become a vengeful justification for intolerance and malicious retribution. Therefore, the psalmist appealed to God, not fellow humans, for justice. We are to leave room for God’s wrath without taking matters into our own hands. (Romans 12:17-21)

So, avoid isolation from God, others, even yourself. Seek help, both divine and human. Tell your story when you are ready. Face the terrible pain. These are the things the psalmist did to deal with his own trauma. The true self acknowledges this and, with full awareness, steps into the future with faith.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace I pray. Amen.

The Big Reveal

Joseph feasting with his brothers by Yoram Raanan
Joseph Feasting with His Brothers by Yoram Raanan

The biblical character, Joseph, went through a lot. While growing up, his brothers misunderstood and ridiculed him as “that dreamer.” Their jealousy and hatred of Joseph led them to throw him into a well and leave him for dead. Then, they turned around and pulled him out only to sell him into slavery. Joseph served as a household slave, until he was again misunderstood and wrongly accused by his master’s wife.

So, Joseph languished in a prison for years, suffering injustice. Yet, the awkward liminal space in between his family of origin and becoming the administrator over all Egypt was not a waste of time. Rather, it gave Joseph a divine perspective on his life and shaped him for his rise to power.

Likely believing he would never see his brothers and father again Joseph went about the immense work of overseeing Egypt. One day, during a severe famine, lo and behold, his brothers show up in his court looking to purchase some food for their large families! Joseph immediately recognized them. The brothers, however, did not have a clue that this was their long-lost brother.

Joseph, understandably guarded, kept his identity to himself and toyed with his brothers to discover how Jacob his father was doing. Eventually, through a labyrinthine experience of a few journeys of the brothers back and forth from Palestine to Egypt, Joseph could take it no longer; he just had to reveal his identity to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1-15)

Yet, the ultimate unveiling is much more a glimpse of what God was up to. Joseph provided a commentary on his life, why he endured hardship, and how he came to be the administrator over all Egypt. Joseph wisely discerned that God sent him to Egypt to save many lives.

It is mostly in retrospect we see what God has been doing all along.  A good chunk of our lives is a mystery that is concealed, only revealed with time and patience on our part. While we exist in the strange space of the great unknowing and may struggle to understand our hardships, God is working behind the scenes, bending all our life events to his purposes. And that is the key to understanding the entire narrative of Joseph (Genesis 37-50).

Joseph’s brothers, despite being stinkers, were the means God used to send Joseph to Egypt.  Furthermore, all of Joseph’s experiences in Potiphar’s house, and in the prison where he was unjustly sent were the training ground for him to lead all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

The Reconciliation of Joseph and his Brothers, Peter Cornelius 1
The Reconciliation of Joseph and His Brothers by Peter Cornelius, 1817

Therefore, trust and faith are imperative for God’s people. Faith is placed where the object is trustworthy. In other words, we trust God if we believe God is good and has our best interests at mind. Conversely, if we view God as sometimes fickle or inattentive, then placing faith in him becomes a gamble and we might be hesitant, hedging our bets and relying more on ourselves and our own ingenuity to get through a hard circumstance.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:16-18, NIV)

We all face times and seasons in our lives where we wonder if the Lord is sitting in his Lazy-God recliner sleeping while we wither in some miserable situation, believing that God has better things to do, or has simply lost interest in my puny life. Yet, it could be that the Lord is providentially shaping our circumstances in preparation for us to accomplish a significant godly purpose.

Although hindsight can help us see the superintendence of God, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is still largely a mystery.  Many times, we can only affirm paradoxical truths. For example:

  • It was ordained before the foundation of the world that Jesus would be our Savior.
  • Jesus chose to willingly face the cross for our sake.

Both statements are equally true at the same time, all the time.

  • Christ’s betrayal by Judas was foreordained and foretold in the Old Testament centuries before Judas Iscariot was born.
  • Judas deliberately chose to betray Jesus with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver.

Both are equally true.

  • Joseph was meant by God to go through all kinds of hardship for a purpose.
  • Joseph willingly submitted to his hardship, choosing not to become angry, bitter, or vindictive.

Both of those realities are equally true.

It is not so much what happens to us that is the issue or problem. Rather, it is how we interpret what happens to us that is the critical issue. The way Joseph interpreted his difficult circumstances and his brothers’ calloused behavior toward him was to see the big picture of what God was doing in the world, instead of merely viewing events from a narrow perspective of painful personal adversity and becoming hateful.

Just as Joseph saw his suffering, hardship, and persecution as the means to saving lives, so Jesus viewed his suffering on the cross as the means to save our lives and bring us reconciliation. And, in the same way, we too, will undergo suffering and hardship for the purpose of saving lives through peacemaking efforts.

My dear wife and I have endured our share of hardship in our lives. I choose to interpret the reason we have gone through it all just as the Apostle Paul discerned his own adversity by saying to the Corinthian Church:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces within you a patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.  And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7, NIV)

Whatever you are going through, or have gone through, even if it has been many years ago, God wants to use your difficulties and troubles for both your personal strengthening of faith, and for empathic and compassionate ministry for the sake of others.

We all need to practice patience and perseverance through hard times, if we are going to realize better days and gain a better interpretation of our difficult circumstances. Here are a few ways to do just that:

Write It Out

When suffering an upsetting event, writing about it can make us feel better as well as helping us make some sense of it. The act of writing organizes our thoughts, which then makes the experience feel less chaotic. Writing also provides an emotional release, along with insight and awareness into yourself. And with awareness, we have conscious choices.

Guard your heart more than anything else because the source of your life flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23, GW)

Some thoughts to get started writing:

  • Set aside 10-15 minutes a day for several days to write about the event and how it made you feel.
  • Don’t worry about grammar or creativity. This is just for you.
  • Stick with it. At first writing about an upsetting experience might be painful. However, over time it can help you get past the upset. Keep in mind, though, that if it is an especially disturbing event, you might want to do this work along with a trained professional.

Tackle Your Problem(s)

When distressed, it is unhelpful to stew in self-pity or to waste energy in blame shifting. Instead, be assertive.

Make every effort to present yourself to God as a tried-and-true worker, who does not need to be ashamed but is one who interprets the message of truth correctly. (2 Timothy 2:15, CEB)

Take charge of your trouble:

  • Write down the problem. On paper it seems more manageable than when it is swirling inside your head.
  • List as many solutions as possible. You can reject options later.
  • Assess the list. Ask yourself how you would like this situation to end. Which of the written options likely will get you there? Weigh the pros and the cons.
  • Accept a reasonable solution, without searching for the perfect one. Focusing on perfection only breeds disappointment.
  • Form a concrete workable plan. Set some realistic and specific deadlines.
  • Avoid discouragement if the first solution does not pan out – just try another one on your list.

Get Support

We as people are hard-wired by God for community and needing one another.

Help each other with your troubles. When you do this, you are obeying the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, ERV)

  • Ask someone to give you a hand if you are overwhelmed.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for advice. Consulting and collaborating with others are always the way of wisdom.
  • Get emotional support. Crying, sharing our frustrations, or otherwise venting helps release tension, relieve stress, and helps us move on.

So, may we choose to have the eyes of faith and trust, discerning that God is good and  sovereignly works out his will through our troubles.

Acts 14:19-28 – Strength through Suffering

William Ellery Channing quote

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and persuaded the people to turn against Paul. So, they threw stones at him and dragged him out of the town. They thought they had killed him. But when the followers of Jesus gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he and Barnabas left and went to the city of Derbe.

They also told the Good News in the city of Derbe, and many people became followers of Jesus. Then Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. In those cities they helped the followers grow stronger in their faith and encouraged them to continue trusting God. They told them, “We must suffer many things on our way into God’s kingdom.” They also chose elders for each church and stopped eating for a period of time to pray for them. These elders were men who had put their trust in the Lord Jesus, so Paul and Barnabas put them in his care.

Paul and Barnabas went through the country of Pisidia. Then they came to the country of Pamphylia. They told people the message of God in the city of Perga, and then they went down to the city of Attalia. And from there they sailed away to Antioch in Syria. This is the city where the believers had put them into God’s care and sent them to do this work. Now they had finished it.

When Paul and Barnabas arrived, they gathered the church together. They told them everything God had used them to do. They said, “God opened a door for the non-Jewish people to believe!” And they stayed there a long time with the Lord’s followers. (ERV)

The Apostle Paul and his traveling companions went on three missionary journeys in the New Testament book of Acts. “Mission” is more than an activity the church does; it is an expression of the church’s identity. To be the community of the redeemed is to embrace and embody the grace and love of Jesus in proclaiming in both word and deed the good news of restoration to God in Christ.

What is good news for many is bad news for others, that is, those for whom are ensconced in power and take advantage of their position to maintain the status quo. Paul was much too radical for them, as he persistently spoke truth to power when needed – not to mention that his effectiveness as a missionary caused a religious, social, and economic impact wherever he went.

It only takes a few rabble-rousers to gin up an angry mob, and Paul saw his share of them. He sometimes escaped unscathed. Yet, in other situations, Paul was beaten or stoned, sometimes being left for dead. So, how does that square with a God who sees all and is able to protect all, especially his own devoted followers?

Paul and his missionary coterie were forthcoming about the nature of following Jesus. Here are a few various translations of their words to new believers (Acts 14:22):

Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. (ASV)

If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles. (CEB)

We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom. (CEV)

We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (NIV)

It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God. (NRSV)

Through many afflictions we must enter into God’s Kingdom. (WEB)

The various English words used to translate the original Greek word accurately depict what Paul was talking about. My own translation of the verse is:

It is through a lot of varied stressful adversity that we must enter the rule and reign of God.

Paul was doing so much more than explaining his own suffering. He saw his experience as paradigmatic for all who would follow Jesus. For it was Christ himself who exhorted people to count the cost of discipleship:

“Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…. Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” (Luke 14:27, 33, NIV)

In doing the very thing which Jesus asks, the Christian life becomes pressurized from those who do not wish to see us:

Proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18, NIV)

Yet, we also have words from the Lord Jesus about how it all shakes-out for us when we deliberately and unflaggingly follow him with steadfast commitment:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, avoid you, insult you, and slander you because you are committed to the Son of Man. Rejoice then, and be very happy! You have a great reward in heaven. That’s the way their ancestors treated the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23, GW)

Adversity quote

Late in Paul’s life as he reflected on his missionary journey experiences, he said to his young protégé Timothy:

You know about my persecutions and my sufferings. You know all the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—the persecution I suffered in those places. But the Lord saved me from all of it. Everyone who wants to show true devotion to God in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:11-12, ERV)

Christian faith is strengthened through the stress, pressure, and adversity of facing hardship through utilizing the words and ways of Jesus. So, receive these blessings from the Apostle Paul today:

And God’s peace, which is so great we cannot understand it, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7, NCV)

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:33, NLT)

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (Galatians 6:18, NRSV)

Matthew 10:5-23 – Jesus the Troublemaker

Jesus, 12th century Romanesque
A 12th century Romanesque depiction of Jesus

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town, and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (NIV)

How do you view Jesus? I trust it includes plenty of compassion. I hope your view of Jesus also encompasses taking on the establishment and causing trouble. “I am sending you like lambs into a pack of wolves,” said Jesus to his disciples. Well, my goodness, that sounds unsafe! Sometimes we might lose sight that Jesus is much less concerned about our sense of safety and security than we are. That doesn’t make Jesus uncaring; it just means he sometimes has a different hierarchy of values than we do. Those who follow Jesus will need to take his concerns and ideals into consideration.

Frankly, the Lord Jesus was often a troublemaker who continually agitated for change. And, what is more, he warned us about trouble in the world. It is not that Jesus was intentionally pressing everyone’s buttons; he was just being himself, and that sent a whole lot of people gnashing their teeth at him. Our Lord Christ got all up into people’s grill and confronted them with bold assertions about justice and righteousness taken at God’s terms, not ours.

Therefore, as Christ’s followers, we can expect opposition and trouble. We need to anticipate we are going to sometimes disrupt and upset relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and those around us. Please understand this is not about being intentionally obnoxious or callously abusive. In fact, what personally drives me batty are Christians who take stupidly stubborn stands on the wrong hills of life, thus hurting others and damaging the cause of Christ. We really must be vigilant if someone’s hackles are raised that it is not because of our own foolish words and actions based in notions which Jesus never espoused.

The model of our Lord Jesus is that he was simply himself – advocating for the lost, the least, and the lonely – challenging systems which kept people burdened, oppressed, and lacking justice. This is the kind of stuff God has always done throughout history. Those with power and privilege discern quickly that advocacy and agitation for systemic change is a threat to them. Thus, we find ourselves like little lambs in a den of wolves. By simply loving Jesus and seeking to follow him we are, at times, going to upset people – and that is okay. Facing trouble is not the worst thing to be experienced – to be separated from God is.

It is okay to rock the boat, shake the tree, upset the fruit basket, stir the pot, and make waves if you are doing it because you value the ethics and methods of Jesus. So, count the cost. Give your life away. In doing so, you will find it.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. Give us the inspiration and courage to build it.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land] that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.